A scene from War for the Planet of the Apes (Twentieth Century Fox)

If you’ve seen the previous two films in this series, then you know what the trilogy has gotten right is that it strikes at greater themes, in the spirit of the original “Planet of the Apes” films. If you want to take a kid to the multiplex to see a movie that is going to do something more than market tie-ins, then you should be content taking them to see War for the Planet of the Apes.

The previous film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, takes place 10 years after the first reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and this third entry seems to take place perhaps a year after the events of the second, in which humanity has been mostly wiped out by the “simian flu.” Humans who are left alive have regrouped into camps of military factions, and it takes place where the first two were set, in Northern California, where one such military group wages war against the nomadic colony of apes led by Caesar.

All three films have featured Andy Serkis in the motion-capture performance as Caesar. In the first movie, Caesar grew from child chimpanzee into adult, who discovered the cruelties inflicted on his species by mankind. In the second, Caesar’s tribe attempted to co-exist with a colony of humans, but this alliance was broken after one of his soldiers, Koba (Toby Kebbell), tried to lead an insurgency among the apes and usurp Caesar’s role as leader.

When War picks up with Caesar, he is a legend, a military leader, perhaps even a presidential figure among the apes. (The bags under his eyes have an eerie resemblance to Abraham Lincoln’s during the Civil War.) Caesar has become a much more complicated figure. He is haunted by visions of Koba, whom he killed in the last film, despite the golden rule that “Ape not kill ape.” The question in Caesar’s heart is: Is he a peaceful ape, or is he more like Koba than he desires?

The peaceful life Caesar wants may be unattainable, unless he chooses to fight back against the humans, who with their advanced weapons and technology continually strike against the apes’ camp, both with full-on campaigns as well as covert missions to try and assassinate him. Faced with the inevitable, Caesar chooses to lead a small team of apes to hunt down and kill the human leader, a man only referred to as the Colonel.

Woody Harrelson plays the head of a militaristic cult who has split off from a much larger military faction in the region. His head pristinely shaved and his eyes hidden behind blue-tinted aviator sunglasses, Harrelson’s Colonel is a cold man with a burden. He leads by fear, unlike Caesar, who leads by hope. The Colonel will stop at nothing to fix the ape problem: first to conquer the apes and then make them his slaves. Savvy film folks will notice his character’s name connotes a certain film based on a certain novella. War winks at this with Harrelson’s character, and it goes the distance with it.

Andy Serkis in War for the Planet of the Apes (Twentieth Century Fox)

Caesar’s band of merry apes are returning cast members Michael Adamthwaite, as Luca the chimpanzee, and Terry Notary, as Rocket the gorilla, Caesar’s two best warriors. Surprisingly coming along on their quest is Karin Konoval as the motherly orangutan, Maurice, who normally spends her time caring for children, but she is also Caesar’s voice of reason. As much has been ballyhooed about Serkis’s motion-capture performances over these past three films, his co-stars must be given credit as they deliver fully realized performances, especially Konoval.

Along their journey they recruit two new characters, Amiah Miller as Nova, a human girl who cannot speak, and Bad Ape, a former zoo chimpanzee who has been scavenging on his own since the end of civilization. While both are intended to continue on to other films planned for this series, neither of them add very much to the story and could easily have been left out.

Bad Ape, played by Steve Zahn, is supposed to add comic relief to what has so far been a deadly serious franchise. Bad Ape has been alone so long, he’s developed some quirks, not to mention his huge ears make him look odd, but none of his physical comedy really works that well when juxtaposed to the film’s heavier themes. Whenever the action stops to show him doing something silly, it’s simply jarring and unasked for.

The little girl, Nova, is a character from the original 1968 film (originally portrayed by Linda Harrison). Given the brief backstory, it doesn’t make any sense why she would happily trot along beside the apes on their revenge quest. The worst parts of the film involve Nova, whom each of the ape characters looks toward as if she is some kind of angel. It’s unexplained and forced. Every time she has one of her moments of hope with an ape, the musical score swells to an annoying degree. Fortunately, there are plenty of more philosophical themes at play here that the filmmakers got right.

However, the title of the movie is actually a bit misleading (the titles in this series have become redundant anyway). The apes spend most of the film in a prisoner of war camp and are forced to build a wall for the military cult. This is where the film goes Gandhi, with Caesar imprisoned among his race and tied up to a cross.

There are strong moments in this film, which is a actually a melting pot of many genres, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and Spartacus. There’s one other we definitely cannot forget though: Planet of the Apes.

This installment bridges the reboot to the original, and it leaves some room for growth. These reboots/prequels all make the same mistake, though, which is whenever they are beholden to setting up characters and events for the story that will presumably happen later, these plot points get in the way of telling the story at hand and can often distract from what should be more important. (This happens in too-big-to-fail franchises like Alien, Star Wars, and X-Men).

Although War for the Planet of the Apes is a fine sign-off for this trilogy, what’s next? A CGI Charlton Heston? You will have to talk to your kids about that.

Directed by Matt Reeves
Written by Mark Bomback and Reeves
Released by Twentieth Century Fox
USA. 140 min. PG-13
With Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, and Amiah Miller